The Sunday Sermon: Transfiguration Sunday – February 11, 2018
Scripture: Mark 9:2-9
Mark propels us forward this week. Following the lectionary readings for the Gospel of Mark in the first period of Ordinary time, from Christmas to the Ash Wednesday cycle this year “B,” we find ourselves shot out of chapter one where so much has happened so quick and so succinctly, into chapter nine where everything changes, for at least a few verses. We’ve only had four Sundays this year between Jesus’ baptism and this morning’s Transfiguration. Depending on the lunar cycle and the occurrence of Easter, we have a longer or shorter stretch of time between these two events in our church year. This year we’ve had only four Sundays. Mark moves quickly in his telling of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, but our church calendar moves quicker to prepare us for our Lenten journey. So here it is, Transfiguration Sunday.
We’ve noted that the Jesus we read, hear, and follow in the Gospel of Mark, in spite of all the miracles, healings, and exorcisms Mark writes about, is the most intensely human in all the gospels. In the few stories we’ve followed this past month, and in the chapters that we’ve jumped over to get to this morning, Jesus feels pity, anger, hunger, weariness, and all the other emotions that you and I feel. This humanity is not “in order to fulfill the scriptures” as Matthew so often notes, or to prepare us for what is to come, as Luke alludes. In Mark Jesus just … gets angry and hungry, and tired and sad. He takes a profound interest in his disciples and the others he comes into contact with. He puts the focus on his, and our, humanity in every encounter he’s had so far.
In this morning’s passage, though, all that changes. If only for a moment …
Listen for the Word of God. Read Mark 9:2-9 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Wow … For the first time in this intensely human gospel, Jesus expresses no emotion, takes no action, in fact he doesn’t speak a word. He is pure transcendence, of a sort found nowhere else in Mark. The Transfiguration story we just read is at the “epicenter” of Mark’s Gospel, halfway between his baptism and his resurrection. Some verse before and a few after frame this “transcendental experience.”
Fear is everywhere in these eight verses. Peter is so terrified that he doesn’t know what to say. (And that’s pretty incredible, given he rarely finds himself at a loss for words!) And the transfiguration as an experience was not shared with anyone. Coming off the mountain, the disciples ask one more question, receive a cryptic answer and life in chapter ten and beyond gets back to “normal,” or as normal as their routine of miraculous healings and exorcisms can be.
It’s all pretty “cool,” but every year on this Sunday before Ash Wednesday, this Transfiguration Sunday, I find myself asking, “What am I supposed to say about all this? What are we supposed to do with all this?” Peter is speechless. Jesus doesn’t explain anything, Even Mark just moves on, getting Jesus back to what he done best so far. Why do we have to spend much more time here, if they don’t! Is there something else I can talk about? I’ve found something else through the years.
I looked back over the past ten years of sermons on this Sunday for this community and most of them, most of them, are on something other than the Transfiguration, other than the versus in Mark, Matthew, or Luke that describe this epiphany. I almost always begin by apologizing in one way or another for avoiding it again that year, rationalizing it in one way or another. And I almost did again this year.
I changed the scripture passage to one in the third chapter of Genesis on Thursday and as going to talk about the “root of our human problem,” the predicament we’re in that our discernment through Lent will help get us out of. I was going to start that message out, too, noting that, while this is Transfiguration Sunday, it’s important to get ready for this Wednesday and the Lenten journey that follows. Because, honestly … I wasn’t sure what to say about this this story.
As fascinating and provocative as it is – mountaintops, dazzling whites, bright lights, Old Testament prophets, overshadowing clouds and divine voices – what does it have to do with the Sunday before Lent?
It was that question that bothered me enough all night Thursday that I called Shelly on Friday morning and had her change the scripture back to Mark 9:2-9 and include the sermon title that is now there. Though, to be honest, I still wasn’t sure how to answer my questions. So, I realized it was time for some “Trans-figuring.” (There it is.) Here’s what has happened since then, what I have found to say.
The mountain top in the ninth chapter of Mark is an extremely “thin place,” a place where the two realities of known and unknown, meet. A place as “in the middle,” as this event is in the middle of Mark’s gospel. These places in our lives are always disorienting. The clues and perspectives that we look to, to tell us who we are and how the world works, don’t’ operate so well. Mark shows this through the terror and confusion of Jesus’ disciples.
But the “thin places” in our lives are also revelatory. As we experience the “joining,” the crossing over, between what we most often call “heaven” and what we know most comfortably as earth, we just may glimpse a new view of reality that changes the way we understand who God is, who we are and what we’re supposed to do because of both of those identities.
As I’ve noted, I’ve experienced the disorientation of this scripture and its “thin place” for years now. It’s time to find out what is being revealed in it: God, Jesus as Christ, and you and me.
First of all, this event, the “transfiguration” – which pretty simply means “the change of a form or appearance into a more beautiful form or appearance” – Mark recounts this as an event for the disciples, for us. It’s not meant to be shared with non-Christians so they might be “awed” into believing. It’s not meant to create faith. This event is meant to be perceived by faith. It is meant for those who already see, hear, comprehend, and believe the gospel so that they, we, may see, hear, comprehend and believe more fully and more deeply.
The voice from the cloud imparts no new, revelatory information. It just sends the disciples back to what they’ve already seen and heard: healings and exorcisms, demonstrations and teachings. Jesus has just predicted his own death and talked about taking up the cross and losing our life for the sake of the gospel. The voice sends those of us who know the full story forward to what we’ll hear again in the chapters to come.
“Listen to him,” the voice from the cloud says. “Don’t let this get by you.”
And that … is why I’ve avoided this passage and this sermon and this Sunday, and why you haven’t dug any deeper into it yourselves. It’s not the fear of the unknown, symbolized by the dazzling white, the appearance of the dead, and voices from clouds. It’s the fear of the known: Our gospel call, the Way of the cross, crucifixion, and all the consequences for those who challenge human imperial power. That call confounds us, confuses us and strikes us dumb.
Mark knows it will, knows it does. And so he let’s us off the hook. As they were coming off the mountain, Jesus ordered the disciples to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. We are to hold these things close and ponder them in our hearts until after the experience of Easter when we most fully understand that God’s love will, and does, overwhelm the powers of this world, definitively at the cross and finally through the empty tomb.
So, we have these forty days, not counting Sundays, to journey together, to seek again, to “listen” better, and understand more fully the deep implications of our discipleship – to change our form and appearance into a more beautiful form or appearance, to be “transfigured” ourselves.
I suppose that’s enough “transfiguring” for now. We’ll begin again in earnest on Wednesday here in the sanctuary. Hope you can join us.
The old is dying. Behold the new is coming.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / February 11, 2018